Drought-resistant corn developed in RTP shows promise

dranii@newsobserver.comSeptember 8, 2012 

HARVESTHISTORY02.NE.051412.ASR

Rachel Dickens plants water-optimized hybrid corn, donated by Syngenta, outside the N.C. Museum of History on Monday, May 14, 2012. It's part of the museum's chronological exhibit -History of the Harvest- that traces the state's early agricultural past through to today's biotech agribusiness. From indigenous medicinal plants to tobacco and cotton to this hybrid corn, the exhibit will grow and bloom through the summer in six planting beds along Bicentennial Plaza.

SHAWN ROCCO — srocco@newsobserver.com

Mike Cyrulik’s decision to experiment with a new breed of Syngenta corn, designed to withstand drought by the company’s scientists in Research Triangle Park, turned out to be fortuitous.

Cyrulik, who grows corn and beans on his nearly 5,000-acre farm about 20 miles south of Bloomington, Ill., wasn’t anticipating abnormally dry weather. He just wanted to see how Syngenta’s new Agrisure Artesian corn would stack up in a typical year. That plan was thwarted by the record-setting drought that has plagued the Midwest this summer.

But the parched conditions didn’t ruin the 220 acres that Cyrulik planted with Agrisure Artesian. Although it won’t be harvested until later this month, he estimates Agrisure Artesian will end up producing between 30 and 50 bushels more per acre than the other hybrid corn he planted.

“You don’t have to be a farmer” to see the difference, said Cyrulik. While the Agrisure Artesian is obviously healthy, “most hybrids around here, they didn’t mature – they just died because they run out of moisture.”

That’s the kind of results that Switzerland-based Syngenta was betting on when it invested tens of millions of dollars and devoted nearly a decade to develop Agrisure Artesian. The company is anticipating that this year’s drought will help boost demand for Agrisure Artesian well beyond the rain-deprived Midwest.

“We really see it as a risk management tool for anyone who grows corn,” said Duane Martin, marketing manager for Agrisure Artesian.

The growing market for drought-resistant corn and other seeds designed to maximize crop production could give the local economy a boost. North Carolina is home to more than 70 agricultural technology companies, and the Triangle is becoming an increasingly important industry hub.

Earlier this year, chemical giant BASF decided to shift the headquarters of its plant-science division from Germany to RTP. And Bayer CropScience recently opened a new $20 million greenhouse in RTP that will be used for research on soy, corn and other crops. Bayer CropScience has its North American headquarters in RTP and also has operations in Morrisville and Clayton.

Scientists at Syngenta’s biotechnology research arm in RTP, which employs more than 400 workers and is in the final stages of a $71 million expansion that includes high-tech greenhouses, developed Agrisure Artesian in conjunction with the company’s breeders in the Midwest and California. The breeders tested the hybrids in the field.

Last year agribusiness giant Syngenta generated more than $13 billion in sales and posted double-digit gains in revenue and net income. It’s the world’s No. 3 purveyor of seeds, behind Monsanto and Dupont, and is also a leader in crop-protection products such as insecticides and herbicides. The company also employs more than 700 workers in Greensboro.

CEO Mike Mack told analysts during a recent conference call that revenue from corn seed sales rose 19 percent in the first half of this year after excluding royalty revenue gained from technology licensed to others.

Visitors to the N.C. Museum of History in downtown Raleigh this summer were afforded an up-close look at Agrisure Artesian corn. The museum’s outdoor “History of the Harvest” exhibit, sponsored by Syngenta, included a variety of crops, including the corn that was grown in colonial times as well as Syngenta’s 21st-century variety.

“Corn was hands-down the most important crop in early agriculture in the state,” said Emily Grant, the museum’s youth programs coordinator.

Maximizing yields

Introduced in July 2010, Agrisure Artesian was the first of a new generation of corn that takes a major leap forward with respect to surviving bone-dry weather. Syngenta’s rivals – DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto – quickly followed with their own offerings, Pioneer Aquamax and Monsanto DroughtGard.

The market has the potential to be big enough for all of them. Bloomberg News has reported that it could top $2.7 billion a year.

Agrisure Artesian is still in the ramp-up phase, with availability limited by Syngenta’s ability to produce seed. For this year’s growing season, said Martin, a small quantity was commercially available in the western corn belt that is prone to drought – parts of Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado – with limited quantities available for conducting tests in North Carolina and other states that produce corn.

Syngenta plans a full commercial launch in the Midwest next year and anticipates small quantities will be available in North Carolina and elsewhere in the U.S, Martin said. Sales outside the U.S. aren’t expected until 2014.

Agrisure Artesian combines the latest advances in biotechnology and traditional breeding techniques used to create novel hybrids. Its water-optimization properties were achieved without genetic modifications, but the corn also incorporates genetically modified traits that protect it from insects and herbicides that previously had been approved by federal regulators.

Syngenta says Agrisure Artesian can reduce by up to 15 percent the amount of crop lost to drought – which Martin said outpaces competitors’ claims – as well as maximize yields under ideal conditions.

Although a 15 percent improvement may not sound like a lot, “with corn prices at $8 per bushel, it is significant money and of real benefit to growers,” Martin said.

Intense interest

Agrisure Artesian can’t work miracles, however.

“This doesn’t let you grow corn where you couldn’t normally grow corn, or where you have a disastrous drought,” Martin said.

Farmers are eager to test for themselves whether Agrisure Artesian performs as advertised, said Ron Heiniger, an agricultural extension specialist at N.C. State University.

“Last spring I was getting calls about every week from growers asking, ‘Is any available yet?’ ” Heiniger said. “It almost drove me to distraction.”

Heiniger conducted a test in Whiteville this summer with Agrisure Artesian and Pioneer’s AquaMax and was impressed by the results.

Grown alongside the corn hybrids that have been proven to be the top performers in the state – what Heiniger called “the top of the top” – Aquamax and Agrisure Artesian ranked second and third, respectively. The difference between the two drought-tolerant corns wasn’t statistically significant.

That performance was especially notable because growing conditions were quite favorable in Whiteville this year, including plenty of rainfall.

“So they’re not just for droughts,” Heiniger said of the new drought-tolerant corn.

Ranii: 919-829-4877

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